mercoledì 18 aprile 2007

Intervista a Christopher Guest

Christopher Guest è un artista eclettico. Nato nel programma comico Saturday Night Live ha recitato nel film This is Spinal Tap dell'amico Rob Reiner, nel ruolo di Nigel Tufnel, ha poi scritto e diretto numerosi film, fra questi anche Waiting for Guffman, Besti in Show e A mighty wind, i tre titoli di cui parla in questa intervista. L'esperienza con Reiner ha sicuramente segnato la sua passione per i mockumentary.

His movies - This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and, opening Wednesday, A Mighty Wind -- described as mockumentaries.

The 55-year-old multi-hyphenate artist argues that while most of his films are shot in documentary style, they aren't intended to mock anyone or document anything. They're reality-based, not in a network-TV sense, but one that allows the assorted dog shows, heavy metal concerts, community theater productions and folk reunions to serve as backdrops for comic character studies of people obsessed with their work or hobbies. Of course, it's much easier for journalists to label them "mockumentaries" and be done with it.

A Mighty Wind imagines a scenario in which a group of folk musicians - 40 years removed from the genre's heyday - are brought together as part of a tribute to their recently deceased manager and financial mentor. The interpersonal dynamics on display are at once touching and hilarious, especially those leading up to the long-awaited reunion of singing sweethearts Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara). Baby Boomers will get the biggest kick out of A Mighty Wind, but, typically, the comedy crosses all generational boundaries.

Movie City News interviewed Guest last month in Los Angeles. A separate interview with co-writer, co-star Eugene Levy follows tomorrow.

MCN: Audiences of a certain age are going to have a blast trying to guess which artists inspired the Main Street Singers, Folksmen and Mitch & Mickey.

CHRISTOPHER GUEST: There were a lot of groups like that in those days ... the Back Porch Majority, the Rooftop Singers, the New Christy Minstrels, maybe a half-dozen groups of a dozen or more people, and they made records that almost all sounded the same. There were tons of trios … the Kingston Trio … Peter, Paul & Mary. Then, there were all the duos … Ian & Sylvia, the Farinas.

MCN: You seem to have a personal relationship with the music, though.

CG: This was the kind of music I played myself, in Greenwich Village, when I was living in New York in the '60s. I played at the Bitter End and in Washington Square, so I didn't have to do a lot of research. We picked these three types of groups, because they represented different kinds of folk music.

MCN: What happened to the lone protest singer … Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs?

CG: It probably would have added too much baggage, because the undercurrent of their music was so serious. That's not what the story's about. We use folk music as a backdrop for a story about these characters and how they're trying to get back to that life.

We projected that on top of the main thing, which involves the situation with Mitch & Mickey. It's very emotional, and that emotion is what's at the core of the movie. You couldn't lay a heavy civil-rights thing on top of that.

MCN: Mitch & Mickey reminded me of Ian & Sylvia, and the fabled break-up of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and how folkies would obsess over their relationships.

CG: There also were Jim & Judy and the Farinas, and on and on. There was always some kind of drama going on around the duos. And, because their songs often were about romance, it only heightened the drama. So, when Eugene and I were writing the story, we put this emotional element at the core of the film.

MCN: There must be something endearing and timeless about the genre. The XM and Sirius satellite radio services even have channels dedicated to folk music.

CG: It's out there. There are young people playing folk music on campuses. Every major city has its own folk scene and folk clubs.

MCN: Within the cultural milieus described in your films, the characters display an almost cult-like obsession with the dog shows, community theater and heavy-metal scenes. It's their world, and almost nothing seems to exists outside of it.

CG: Absolutely.

MCN: But, you're not mocking these people, as some critics seem to think?

CG: No. But I am interested in the notion that people can become so obsessed by their world that they lose sense and awareness of how they appear to other people. They're so earnest about it. But that's true of so many things.

MCN: How do you come up with your ideas?

CG: I don't work with high-concept things that start with a premise, "Wouldn't it be funny if there was this spy who met a ..." For me, it could be, "What about people who sell shoes? That must be a bizarre world ... when they meet at conventions and talk about shoes."

That sort of thing fascinates me. Someone sells urinal cakes on the road. There are these worlds out there and it doesn't matter what it is. They're fascinating.

MCN: The characters are extreme, but also very recognizable.

CG: We populate the stories with people who share certain traits. Invariably, someone will say, "I know that guy." Every world has odd people. After Waiting for Guffman came out, people would come up to me and say, "I know that guy because he was my theater teacher in high school."

But, there are 180,000 people like that out there. It's not about one person. That's human behavior, and it's what I like to watch. I like to sit in the park and watch people.

MCN: I was struck by the smiles on the Bohners (John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch). They were part of a contemporary New Christy Minstrels-type group, but they could have been part of a cult.

CG: With the Main Street Singers, there's this overlay of "What the hell is going on here? Why are they so happy?" Then, there's their thing about color therapy.

MCN: There's a very fine line between wholesome and creepy. Laurie Bohner, for instance, has no problem admitting that she once starred in porn films.

CG: I've always wondered about those groups, who sing in theme parks. What's really going on there? There's a kind of forced bliss.

So we give you a glimpse of this color religion the Bohners are into. That's the kind of thing we add to the characters.

MCN: Was there much of a learning curve for the actors playing these musicians?

CG: No, they understood immediately. I said, "You know the kind of group where there's this vaguely, almost religious thing … where they're always very up."

Parker Posey's amazing at it. There was a bit more of a back story to her character, but, all we learn about her is that "she was on the street" before joining the Main Street Singers Sometimes, the more you don't say about someone, the better it is.

MCN: I once covered a ventriloquist convention in Las Vegas, and all of your movies remind me of that experience.

CG: I'd kill to do that. I did a little bit of ventriloquism in Best in Show. In fact, I found a journal from my family that went back 200 years, and one of my great, great, great, great ancestors was a ventriloquist, in London in 1802.

It was eerie because I did ventriloquism when I was a kid. I never had any training. The voices just came to me.

MCN: Working with the same group of actors must be helpful.

CG: These are people I trust implicitly. I revere their talents and they're good friends. What could be better than getting to play with your friends, literally.

MCN: I imagine you're able to communicate by shorthand?

CG: They're miles ahead of me. There's not a lot of explaining. Everything's at a pretty high level of communication.

MCN: You have a core of fans that will see anything you make on the first weekend. It takes other people time to discover your movies. There's a delayed response.

CG: With Spinal Tap, we didn't do anything in the theaters, but it's done extremely well over the last 20 years in video. Best in Show has done extremely well in video.

The movies have a way of seeping out there over time. We don't put them in 2,000 theaters. It wouldn't work that way.

MCN: How about the marketing ... posters that remind audiences of your other movies.

CG: It's all up to me. It's simple and to the point.

How else would they know what to look for? There aren't many familiar names.

MCN: Besides collaborating with Eugene Levy on the screenplay, you also put his character through an emotional wringer … sort of a cross between late-Bob Dylan and early-John Denver.

CG: We've been working together for about eight years. We both came up with the same idea for Mitch. Because it played so much against type for Eugene, we both saw it as a challenge ... a stretch.
da MCN: Movie City News

A Mighty Wind clip

Best in Show clip

Waiting for Guffman clip

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